Instead of Industrial Giants, Brooklyn Has Niche Factories

The hulking five-story brick factory, complete with an emblematic smokestack, once braided rope for New York’s shipbuilding industry and employed hundreds of blue-collar workers.

It no longer makes rope, but in a promising twist for the city’s survival as a place where things are made, the factory on the Brooklyn side of Newtown Creek has not suffered the fate of many old industrial buildings: conversion into residential lofts for artists or bankers to live in.

Rather, this building, at 1205 Manhattan Avenue, has been sliced and diced into several dozen small factories, each with a niche clientele. One forges exhibits out of wood and metal for the city’s museums. Another makes props and models for advertisers of products like Absolut Vodka to use in their magazine photo spreads. A third restores stained-glass masterpieces for museums like the Cloisters.

This is the face of manufacturing in 2012 Brooklyn. The big industrial behemoths that until the 1960s once made Brooklyn a rival to Chicago’s image as the “stormy, husky brawling City of the Big Shoulders” are mostly gone. Domino sugar, Eberhard Faber pencils, Schaefer beer, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, companies that sold their products across much of the country and sometimes the world, have found locations where wages, taxes and real estate costs are lower, traffic is not as snarled, regulations are not as burdensome, and there is elbow room for the scale required by modern machinery and trailer trucks. Their departures have cost the city thousands of jobs nearly every year for decades.

But in a shift that has been both celebrated and parodied, Brooklyn is increasingly retaining some of its remaining industrial spaces for small-scale, small-batch manufacturing.

A surge of young entrepreneurs eager to produce $7 chocolate bars made from hand-roasted and hand-ground cocoa, or build theater and movie sets or fashion high-end furniture for a connoisseur’s market find the smaller spaces carved out of these old factories precisely what they have been looking for.

Often the rents are affordable and the entrepreneurs can commute to work by bicycle. Such businesses also operate in New York because it has a wealth of the skilled employees they need for idiosyncratic operations that often find their customer bases within the city’s borders.

“We think this is the future of urban manufacturing,” said Brian T. Coleman, chief executive of Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit group that has bought four weathered industrial buildings and converted them into lofts for small factories housing 110 businesses with 500 employees.

“There is a highly skilled work force making products for local consumption,” he said.

Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a policy-research institute, said he was optimistic about this “revival of entrepreneurial manufacturing.”

But he noted that these niche enterprises do not employ anything like the thousands of workers the mass producers did; Brooklyn averaged 11.2 workers per business in 2011, compared with an average of 16.8 workers in 2000.

Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, pointed out last year in “How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back,” that the refashioned Brooklyn Navy Yard rented space to 275 businesses employing 5,800 people, a figure that pales next to the 15,000 the yard employed in 1959.

Still, Mr. Bowles said, while “the overall trend continues to be that manufacturing employment is dropping, it is dropping at a smaller rate in Brooklyn than it has in decades.”

Between 2000 and 2003, Brooklyn hemorrhaged about 11,000 manufacturing jobs, dropping to 32,298 from 43,212, according to New York State Labor Department figures Mr. Bowles cited. But between 2009 and 2011, the drop was far smaller, to 19,445 from 20,650, or just 1,205 jobs.

Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, said Brooklyn “is going back to the future.”

“What is emerging is the artisanal approach rather than the mass production for millions of items of something,” he said.

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